The War on Drugs Is Holding Science Back

Alcoholism is a relentless condition—90 percent of patients suffer a relapse within three years. But Dr. Ben Sessa believes he’s identified a substance that could help improve these outcomes. There’s just one problem: current drug policy makes it exceedingly difficult for him to conduct research into the treatment.

That’s because the substance is MDMA, a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which is classified in both the United Kingdom and the United States as “having no medical benefits” and is thus so strictly regulated that it is almost impossible for clinical researchers to study.

Even though Dr. Sessa is a renowned clinical psychiatrist with 20 years of experience and the backing of a respected university, it’s taken him six years to get the study off the ground. The special license required to work with controlled substances cost him nearly $40,000 and took two years to acquire. The requisite lab security equipment and law enforcement monitoring cost another $50,000.

His team also had to apply for a range of regulatory approvals, ethics review boards, pharmacy permissions, and legal and medical licenses. These hurdles increased the cost of Dr. Sessa’s research by a factor of 10. Last month, he finally announced the commencement of his study, which will continue to be subject to scrutiny by officials overseeing the implementation of drug control policy.

Dr. Sessa’s experience may sound like a tall tale of irrational and inefficient regulation, but his story is all too real—and far from unique. For 50 years, and in the name of the war on drugs, policymakers have prioritized law enforcement over medical research. The result? A war on drugs that is still raging, and half a century of suppression of scientific research and discovery.

Although this incursion on people’s right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress is one of the lesser-known costs of the war on drugs, its consequences are both severe and long-lasting. By labeling MDMA, among other substances, as Schedule 1, governments have created a huge barrier to scientific research, depriving the world of possible breakthroughs in health and knowledge. Reform is badly needed.

Take cannabis, for example. Despite the nearly 4,000 years of history during which cannabis was used for medical purposes—and despite the fact it is currently used for medicinal purposes in 29 states as well as the District of Columbia—in the United States today, cannabis, too, is a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Any U.S. researcher who wishes to further society’s understanding of cannabis is thus faced with a dispiriting gauntlet of regulations.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Not so long ago, MDMA was utilized in psychotherapy to facilitate communication. (While the substance is popularly known today as “ecstasy,” researchers back then called it “empathy.”) LSD, too, was once used to treat an array of health issues—from alcoholism to cluster headaches—and was studied in over a thousand clinical papers in the 1950s and ’60s.

However, since the UN Drug Control Conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988 imposed severe restrictions on even the medical and scientific handling of certain substances, research into their medical value has all but disappeared. Right now, in countries around the world, researchers in this field are confronting Kafkaesque bureaucracies that are delaying and disrupting their work.

Countering the oppressive impact of drug policy on science will require a long-term commitment to serious and expansive reform. But there are things policymakers can do as interim steps.

National governments could reclassify substances such as MDMA, cannabis, and LSD to less restrictive schedules, which would put them under more feasible regulatory control and open up options for scientific research—while still being in compliance with the abovementioned conventions. Governments and policymakers could also lift the outrageous licensing fees charged to scientists for research into controlled substances, and could simplify and expedite licensing approvals for academic research into controlled substances.

Ultimately, though, policymakers on both the national and international levels need to take a hard look at the way the war on drugs is holding the world’s researchers to ransom. We’ve already let more than 50 years’ worth of research slip through our fingers; enough is enough.

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I have never understood governments hysteria and fear concerning drugs.Possibly because I grew up in The drug culture of the 1960s.Alteration of ones conscious,getting high,whatever one wants to call it is a NATURAL inclination in both humans and animals.The destructive foolish drug wars do not work in part because they go against human nature.Im not saying that drug ABUSE,rather than use,isn't a problem.It is.But when some get to that mindset it should be treated as a health and safety medical problem,not as a criminal issue.So many have had their lives ruined and been labeled as criminals,when their only "crime" has been ingesting something that others tell them not to touch.Cannot the u.n.understand the total folly of such.Especially when it is cannabis,a natural plant,does the utter stupidity of these laws become apparent.The schedule 1 is a farce.Cannabis is still considered to have "no medical use" according to that schedule,even though over half the u.s. has accepted,and proven its varied medical benefits.There has also been ample research for decades that prove it is medicinal.The idiocy of schedule 1 truly needs to end.

Thank you George Soros for having such an intelligent discussion about a subject upon which the powers that be continue to act irrationally. Or perhaps they are not so irrational, and are perpetuating ignorance and misunderstanding so they can continue to successfully use this issue as a political football and a cheap way to get votes. One thing is certain, they do not have the courage to engage this issue in an open and honest way. So much needless suffering is caused by this irresponsibility.

I just think this situation is a complete re-take of the children's fairytale The Emperor's Clothes. it is like people refuse to say what they see. Even those wanting psychedelics and MDMA being 'allowed' by the warmongering war criminal ecocidal insane ones, as though they are children by these a holes! Why cannot it be said loud and clear. The reason they are against cannabis, and the natural psychedelics (will get o the potions in a moment) is because they cannot make a fkin PROFIT out of them and will try and defend their corporate interests come what may. As well as this it was spelt out by someone who was working close to President Nixon that this so-called war on drugs had nothing to do with concern about their absurd claim they have 'no medical benefit' but as a way to control people through violence, at that time political activists, black people, the hippies. These people who wage war against nature and consciousness are utterly insane and are wanting perpetual war of all kinds and are ecocidal, destroying planet Earth for ALL life, and generations to come,and should not be given any respect whatsoever!!

Can't help but consider that resistance could also come from the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Good health does not increase their profits.

Like 'drug scientists' are all noble and only have humanity as their raison d'etre. Looking into their mirrors they see themselves as the world's greatest Angels of Mercy ... Frankenstein is fiction.

Thank you so much for this work. Drug and sex decriminalization needs to have less of a stigma attached to it from centuries of religious rhetoric.

There is no reasonable basis for governments to continue applying layers of red tape on drug research - it's all ideological.

Great point about MDMA's history as a therapy drug in the 70s; how many people would even know about that?

The war on drugs already causes so much damage, and were it not for its infiltration into science and research we may have long ago eradicated the stigma associated with certain drugs and they'd have their place alongside other mainstream, respected medicines.

Great post.

A step forward would be refreshing for a change . Thank you for you efforts .

This is important work that should be supported for the sake of human progress and well-being

"War on drugs" is a powerful government propaganda term. It is intentionally misleading.

"Drug prohibition" is accurate. It's the policy of prohibition which forces officials to repress research efforts.

Nerve pain, seizures, cancer pain relief. The evidence is there but still no accessibility. Suffering is apparently acceptable!

They already know the three substances all have Heath benefits of some sort, some money in taxing the green, but not the type your making with privately owned jails, they make money throwing ppl in jail, or they wouldn't have giving a black lady 5yrs in prison for voting while on parole, she thought she was done, simple mistake,you don't deserve 5yrs, or I've heard of a 18yr sold pot to an undercover officer at school only 3 times,they gave him 25yrs.....Like why lock these ppl up, The top ppl in the field of study for these substances back then have all past,on as will as there data most likly,

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